An atypical classroom

Ten years ago, I never imagined I would be taking a college class that involved sniffing whiskeys and playing with jiggers (not nearly as dirty as it sounds); in which the final evaluation tested my ability to free pour 1.5 oz. and mix 12 drinks in 12 minutes. But here I am, in that class doing those very things and more. The beverage labs at JWU were recently featured in a NYT article that characterized this component of the curriculum as a rarity, even for a professional culinary arts program. Its classes like this one, even though I often bemoan them, that convinced me to choose JWU in the first place. Even though I’m not actually preparing food, I’m learning about flavor combinations, regional specialties, interesting tidbits on concepts like terroir and aging that are useful in and of themselves and, of course, apply not just to beverages but to food as well. A culinary education that encompasses, or at least introduces, the broader context: how flavors, concepts, preferences, and techniques are informed by historical, geographic, and cultural circumstances (the history of sugarcane is the history of rum).

Three cocktails, two ways:


Clash of the titans

I’m working on a couple bigger posts, but in the meantime, an hors d’oeuvre, if you please: Frank Bruni’s recent op-ed in the NYT, “Unsavory Culinary Elitism.” Bruni takes on a pretty volatile interface, that between food and class, as he points to a recent clash between two food world titans that “exposes class tensions in the food world that sadly mirror those in society at large. You can almost imagine Bourdain and Deen as political candidates, a blue-state paternalist squaring off against a red-state populist over correct living versus liberty in all its artery-clogging, self-destructive glory.”

Bruni puts Anthony Bourdain on the chopping block for his characteristically blunt and unflattering remarks about Paula Deen, and rightly so, even if Bourdain did have a point, as he usually does. Paula Deen does not help matters by skirting Tony’s apparent concern for her audience’s health, as she seems more intent on landing a low blow of her own. Perhaps she skirts it because there isn’t really a good reason why “regular families” need to add ridiculous quantities of butter to the food they cook at home…though maybe it’s because only then would home-cooked food be preferable to the fast food burgers these families would otherwise be gorging on? I don’t know. But instead, as Bruni points out, with her rhetoric Deen turns the argument into a class issue by targeting the very comfortable perch from which Bourdain speaks. Not that her own perch isn’t just as peachy.

This spat between Bourdain and Paula Deen is exactly that, but the differences in their worldviews when it comes to food does well illustrate the sort of class divisions that Bruni is getting at. The antagonistic and hostile quality of their remarks is reminiscent of the “ill will and polarization” of our politics at large. As we all know, these sorts of petty remarks (“her food sucks”) don’t help the greater public health issue that is at stake and at the heart of this discussion. Neither person seems particularly wed to the cause, but because they are such influential figures in their respective circles, what they say and how they act will reverberate. As people in power, both would do well to spend more time embracing the responsibility to act and speak thoughtfully and less time abusing the privilege of having an open mic.

Plumpy’nut: a knuckleheaded name for a food that saves lives

Its moniker is misleading, as this nut paste is not intended to fatten kids up but in fact save their lives. In the 90’s, a French pediatrician invented this simple formula containing peanut paste, vegetable oil, milk powder, vitamins and minerals. According to CNN, this “magic potion, as big a development as penicillin…is widely credited with single-handedly lowering mortality rates from famine in Africa.” Crucially, the paste contains a calibrated proportion of saturated fats in order for a child to obtain maximum nutritional benefit from its contents. The fact that it is a paste (contrasted with a chocolate bar) is also key, as it does not wilt into a goo (since it pretty much already is one) on a hot summer day. It stores just as easily, and is more or less just as easy to eat. I haven’t tried it, but if the inspiration for Plumpy’nut was Nutella, then it probably also tastes pretty good, too. Food that fights starvation with deliciousness — that’s big-time, blog-worthy stuff.

Thoughts on “A Casual Sunday Lunch”

When you think of mealtime on Sundays, I’m sure visions of stacks of pancakes, muffins and scones straight from the oven, french toast dripping with maple syrup, sausage links and crisp bacon slices, fluffy omelets oozing with cheese, and other indulgent offerings come to mind. To me, it also strongly evokes catching up with friends and lingering over several cups of coffee, so eating on-the-go is the last thing I would associate with a casual weekend repast. It never occurred to me to me to pair a proper meal with a subway ride, but I thought it was a fun, provocative idea.

“The subway is a familiar place, providing a necessary means of transportation for many New Yorkers. Its stairwells, turnstiles, platforms, trains and unpredictable elements are all-too-familiar to its dedicated patrons. One begins to know the exact time of travel from one destination to another. One begins to intuit the conditions of a ride, anticipating smooth stretches and knowing when to brace for a jarring turn. Through a series of familiar gestures, presented in commonplace locations in unfamiliar ways, we set out to challenge a habitual experience.”

Probably also because it feels damn good to take on, and pull off, something like that, which warrants going out and drinking obscene amounts of alcohol to celebrate how wicked and awesome you are.

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DD’s Royal Wedding Donut

In honor of the Royal Wedding taking place this week, DD is rolling out a special, limited edition Royal Wedding Donut. (DD’s CEO and Prez is a dual U.S. and British citizen.) I like the idea, but I have to say, I think the donut they came up with is pretty lame. And the explanation is doubly lame.

“…the team couldn’t resist making a heart-shaped glazed donut that’s filled with jelly. The heart signifies the love between Prince William and Catherine, and the donut is filled with jelly to represent how their lives are to be ever-filled with happiness. In honor of the traditional white wedding gown, the donut is topped with white frosting, but adds a modern twist with the chocolate drizzle, in celebration of William’s love for chocolate. ”

Chocolate drizzle is “a modern twist”? Seriously, the best they could come up with is a heart-shaped donut filled with (don’t hold your breath) jelly and (keep breathing) vanilla and chocolate icing?

Why not a variation of the McVitie’s chocolate biscuit cake that Prince William specially requested for the wedding reception? Or a donut with a British flag theme or a royally classic flavor combination like pb&j, or a donut topped with edible gold flakes to honor the crown? The one they came up with is nothing but the uninspired offspring of their marble frosted and jelly donuts. I know this city is fiercely loyal to its beloved chain; but I think that’s partly why Boston isn’t anywhere near the doughnut town New York is.

The U.S. food supply, then and now

There’s an interesting post today from Sociological Images on how the U.S. food supply has changed over the past 40 years. If you’re a data geek, here is more information on how the USDA Economic Research Service came up with the numbers.

In 1970, an average of 2,168 calories per day was available to the U.S. consumer, and the single largest source was “meat, egg & nuts”:

In 2008, an average of 2,673 calories was available — an increase of 505 calories. The largest jumps were in “grains” and “added fat,” which both saw an increase of over 200 calories, accounting for the majority of the overall increase in caloric availability:

Note that food availability does not equal food consumption, but data on availability do serve as popular indicators of consumption patterns. Also, since these data reflect availability at the national level, they don’t necessarily match food availability in specific geographic areas. Might be worth taking a step back the next time you’re in the local supermarket (or even just looking into your cart) to see how your own consumption patterns — and your community’s — measure up.

Importantly, SI reader Chorda also notes that the increase in “added fat” calories corresponds to a much lower amount in dry weight (~0.9 oz) versus a ~2.2 oz  increase in available grains. In other words, another way of thinking about the 505-calorie increase is to combine “two tablespoons of oil with three tablespoons flour and one tablespoon sugar…could you even get a single pancake out of that?”

More SI food-related posts here.

Want some politics with that?

Gasp, there’s only one Chick-fil-A in New York City?? Not sure why they wouldn’t want more stores there, though it’s possible all that gayness might contaminate their food. All I know is that fried chicken sandwiches and waffle fries are terribly fond of one another and have been in a committed, loving relationship since before I was born. Their partnership, while polyamorous, is precious and must be preserved. New York would be much worse off without a single Chick-fil-A branch to glorify this happy marriage. I wouldn’t let Dan Cathy’s politics deprive me of celebrating such a beautiful thing. After all, I have him to thank for creating and executing his restaurant vision. Every time I call on them, Chick-fil-A products consistently satisfy my stomach, if not my soul.

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Externalized food costs

This article by Marion Nestle provides a short but substantive look into some of the externalized food costs that keep food prices lower than they might otherwise be in a food production system that doesn’t prioritize maximizing economic profits. I was particularly interested in seeing, in cold numerical terms, how external costs factor in (or not) to the prices consumers see on the shelves, especially since these facts came straight from the horse’s mouth. For example: “The CEO of a large U.S. meat company told me that if he raised wages by $3, he could hire locals and not have to deal with immigrant labor. But then he would have to raise the price of his meat by 3 cents per pound (I’m not kidding). That amount, he claimed, would price him out of competitiveness.” Also, “officials of one vegetable-packing company told me that the impressively comprehensive food safety system they instituted in the wake of recalls raised the cost of their products by only one penny a case (I’m not kidding about this, either).” All external costs obviously can’t be quantified, but these tidbits shed some light into the numbers game being played behind closed doors.

While I’m still a little uncomfortable with thinking of obesity as a fully fledged public health issue that necessitates government intervention, I can’t deny two things: 1) Right now, “cheap” food equals “junk” food — “high in calories and low in nutritional value”; and 2) “When food is cheap, people eat more of it. Abundant cheap food leads companies to aggressively market their products to be eaten any time, any place and in very large amounts – all of which promote biologically irresistible overeating.” I do believe that a system that churns out unsafe and/or unhealthy food with high external costs because it’s cheaper to do so is unequivocally wrong. If food industries can’t hold themselves accountable to being responsible producers, policy must fill in the gap.